The Lost Art of Sentimental Hairwork

4 February 2012

Mrs. Hamlin's Family History Wreath

Mrs. Hamlin of Omaha, Nebraska left a rather curious heirloom to her descendants—an intricately woven bouquet composed entirely of human hair. Buried deep inside, each of its flowers is numbered with a tiny label corresponding one of fifteen names written on a separate index card; those of herself and her loved ones. More than a century ago, each of these people offered up their locks of brown or gray—literally, pieces of themselves—to provide the material for what would become a lasting symbol family unity. 

The weaver need not have been the eccentric that one might suppose. On the contrary, she was likely to have been a conventional middle class lady going about her fancywork. She may have included a lock of her own in the wreath, but quite possibly she did not, preferring instead to be present as the sum of its parts; the invisible weaver of family ties. As a good 19th century woman, the domestic harmony she fostered was an expression of herself; her self-portrait in sacrifice. 

As Helen Sheumaker describes in Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America, hairwork in its myriad forms had not only established itself as longstanding tradition by the latter half of the 19th century, but had become an active fashion. Husbands went to work wearing watch fobs fashioned of their wives hair. Locks from the dearly departed were mounted into rings and brooches. Ladies filled their autograph books with snippets from their friends. At a time of rising commercialism, sentimental hairwork became a way both to signal one’s sincerity and, paradoxically, to stay in style. 


Hairwork Wreaths
 

Hairwork Wreath (1881) on Display at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis

Gray Hairwork Wreath (c1880's), Photo by eBay user 57tomcat

French Mourning Wreath (1857), Photo by eBay user karenskyler

Hairwork wreaths were proudly displayed as parlor pieces. Some, like Mrs. Hamlin’s bouquet, combine hair from many living individuals, blending different shades together in interesting and creative ways. Often wreaths are associated with mourning and contain of the hair of the recently departed. It is not always obvious to the collector which is which, but memorial wreaths are easily identified when they incorporate funereal iconography, mottos, etc.

Some wreaths reflected affinities outside those of the family. Sheumaker describes how in 1864 one Nila Bailey became “fired with an ambition” set out to create a wreath using locks of hair from Lincoln, his cabinet and important military leaders. This would be a Herculean task under ordinary circumstances, but in spite of the fact that there was a civil war raging she was able to collect hair from more than thirty individuals, including Winfield Scott and William Seward. The finished product was mounted in a gilt frame “richly embossed with the national emblem and garnished by a back ground of crimson drapery, with two beautiful silk flags floating over all.” It raised $400 in a charity raffle. 

The techniques of wreath-making involved mounting strands of hair onto thin wire frames. To create a leaf or flower, one could either loop a strand of hair and attach it to the wire at its ends, or first “gimp” it between straight lengths of wire and shape it afterward. In either case, very short strands of hair could be used, rendering it practicable to build a wreath even when one’s family members might not all be endowed with an abundance of raw material. The finished product could then be placed inside a bubble frame or shadow box. 
 

Hairwork Albums

 

Leaves from a Hairwork Album (dated 1865), Photo by Deborah Walters

From Little Town on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder: 

In Laura’s package was a beautiful small book, too. It was thin, and wider that it was tall. On its red cover, embossed in gold, were the words, Autograph Album.

The pages, of different soft colors, were blank. Carrie had another exactly like it, except that the cover of hers was blue and gold.

“I found that autograph albums are all the fashion nowadays,” said Ma. “All the most fashionable girls in Vinton have them.”

“What are they, exactly?” Laura asked.

“You ask a friend to write a verse on one of the blank pages and sign her name to it,” Ma explained. “If she has an autograph album, you do the same for her, and you keep the albums to remember each other by.”

Laura fetched her album from her box upstairs, and Ma sat at the desk and carefully wrote in it with her little pearl-handled pen. She dried the page carefully over the lamp, and returned the album to Laura.

On the smooth, cream-colored page, in Ma’s fine handwriting, Laura read:

If wisdom’s ways you wisely seek,
five things observe with ease,
To whom you speak,
Of when you speak,
And how, and when and where.

Your loving mother 
C L Ingalls 
De Smet November 15th, 1881

In addition to passages of verse, a lady could also collect snippets of hair for her autograph album. These might be loose strands, or they might be elaborately braided, embellished with ribbons, and so on. Each lock would in this way serve as a symbol of the ties that bind and as well as a physical relic of an absent friend or family member.

Given the limitations upon communications and travel during the 19th century, it was all too easy for relationships to lapse once friends were separated, and so many verses expressed grief or implored the album holder to remember their authors when they part. Helen Sheumaker cites this example by Geo. Garber:

In hours of calm reflection
In hours of social glee
It you should by recollection
Think of friends, think of me.

The closest modern equivalent to the Victorian autograph book is the common practice of having one’s school yearbook inscribed by classmates. 
 

Hairwork Jewelry

 

Hairwork Brooch (c1820), Photo by eBay user isellhardtofind

Hairwork Medallion with Gold Initials, from Collector's Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry

Hairwork Medallion with Gold Initials, from Collector's Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry

     

Palette-worked Hair Medallion with Funereal Iconography, from Collector's Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry

Albums and wreaths were mere sidelines to the flourishing trade in hairwork jewelry that saw its peak in America during the 1850’s – 1880’s. Two basic techniques were used. Table-worked hair was braided and woven into elaborate patterns, as in the broach and monogrammed medallions shown above. Palette-worked hair was glued onto a flat surface to produce pictures, or curled and fanned out into so-called Prince-of-Wales feathers. The resulting piece could then be mounted in a jewelry casing.

Much of this work was performed by professional hairworkers who contracted for local jewelers or national mail order companies. Customers would select the design they wanted from a catalog, supply the hair they wanted used, and receive the finished product some time later. These services were advertised with pointed assurances that the hair given would actually be the hair used, implying that their competitors were merely tossing out one’s treasured strands and substituting them with convenient bundles of…who knows what? 

In addition to publishing instructional material, stories and verse to promote the craft, Godey’s Lady’s Book was for some time the leading mail order company in the business. Others included the National Artistic Hairwork Company, who published a dense catalog with hundreds of designs, and Mark Campbell, whose 1867 Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work even today remains the most sought-after book of hairwork technique. While instructions for making hairwork jewelry at home were readily available from Godey’s, Campbell, and Cassell’s Household Guide and other sources, the best work was created by highly skilled professionals.

Mark Campbell Demonstrating the Table-Work Technique

   

A Hair Feather Design from the National Artistic Hairwork Company's Catalog

Hairwork jewelry was valued for the authenticity it communicated. It was unique, handwoven, and composed of material that held special meaning for the wearer. It was a commercial good, but one which resisted the shallowness and uniformity of the market…for a time. In the end, the level of individual attention involved could not survive the requirements of department store capitalism, which demanded an inventory of cheap, ready made goods. 

For example in 1908, Sears took to advertising hair chains with the caveat that “We do not do this braiding ourselves. We sent it out; therefore we cannot guarantee same hair being used that is sent to us; you must assume all risk.” Revelations like these prompted people to take a closer look at just where all this hair was coming from, and soon journalists were printing sensational exposés that described pathetic European peasant girls being shorn for the hair trade, or, even worse, hair being picked off of dead bodies with the rotting follicles still attached. As public perceptions shifted, demand for hairwork products correspondingly plummeted. 

 Reviving a Lost Art
 

Hair Art in a Nut Shell by Christina Witz.

The advent of the World Wide Web has seen a revival of interest in hairwork among crafters and collectors alike.  A trade in hairwork antiques has sprung up on eBay, where they can often be fetched for a steal as the collectors’ market has not yet taken full notice of them. In Independence, Missouri, Leila Cohoon has established the world’s only hair museum, boasting over 500 wreaths and 2,000 items of jewelry, and is currently writing what will become the first modern book on hairwork technique. Marlys Fladeland hosts the Victorian Hairwork Society website; an indispensable resource for artists and collectors, which even includes a curious little marketplace where one can buy and sell human hair. 

Writing of the flourishing trade in postmortem photography, Mark Dery remarked that, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, such images are “riveting because they emblematic the Authentic in an ever more mediated world.” So, too, does Victorian hairwork serve as an exemplar of genuine, unironic sentiment and tangible lived experience that we, in the information age, have so often longed to recapture. The main reason why there is not a comparable demand for hairwork today may simply be that the public has not yet been made aware of it. 

The conditions, it seems, are ripe for revival, but the path is less than clear. There are no glossy how-to manuals, no kits in your local arts and crafts store. Aspiring hairworkers must refer back to the original 19th century sources, rediscover lost techniques and adapt them to modern styles and conditions, but they do so knowing that their work will be noticed, and that their contributions will serve as valuable guideposts for those who will come after.

So, are you up for it? 

Further Reading

Special Thanks To…

  • Tom Cooper for permission to use his photo of Mrs. Hamlin’s bouquet. More information about it can be found at the Hairwork Society website. 
  • Deborah Walters (DAW43@aol.com) for permission to use her photo of the hairwork album she possesses. More information about it can be found at the Hairwork Society website. 
  • Christina Witz for permission to use a photo of her original hair art. See more at myperceptionart.com
  • eBay users karenskyler57tomcat and isellhardtofind for use of their images. Please visit their auctions to see what they have to offer.  

 

 

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24 Comments to “The Lost Art of Sentimental Hairwork”

  1. Lovely post! And I loved reading that passage from Laura Ingalls Wilder. Brought back memories from my childhood. Devoured those books. :)

    And I think giving hair as a gift can be very romantic. (a locket of hair, for example).

    • I agree.

      I asked a girl in I was in a long distance relationship with for a lock of her hair once, but she just thought I was weird.

  2. I think it is a most sentimental way to memorialize someone you have lost. The artwork in the pictures you have shown are so ornate, I thoroughly enjoyed this post.

  3. Melissa Springer

    Is there any workshops offered in the US teaching the skill of making such beautiful art out of hair? Or can you recommend a book. I am in love with this art form.
    Thanks
    Melissa Springer

    • Most people who do this are referring back to the original 19th century sources, like Mark Campbell’s Self-instructor in the Art of Hairwork, and working it out for themselves. The Victorian Hairwork Society (http://www.hairworksociety.org/) has compiled the best information, and is a good place to go to meet others you can potentially collaborate with.

      Good luck!

  4. hair heirlooms! You do such wonderfully researched posts.

  5. Thank you for the delightful article. I had never seen hair creations like that before. The are lovely.

  6. I was wondering if anyone has information on Victorian wedding bouquets incorporating jewelry/brooches in it from that era. Do you know of any antique photographs or drawings of this subject? Please if anyone has any information please contact me.

  7. I found this article looking for information about making a bracelet of my hair for my boyfriend. I use to collect hair in high school from my friends and save some of it still, along side there pictures but I likened this to my own lock of hair in my baby book and had little knowledge until recent years of a once flourishing practice.

  8. Marcie Hoye Cumberland

    I am working on an historical novel for Young Adults in which a woven hair brooch is an integral part. This is a fascinating bit of almost lost art that I believe will interest my readers.

    Can anyone lead me to clear photos or drawings of such a brooch that are either in the public domain or that I could obtain permission to use as an illustration. If so please email me at yarntangler at gmail dot com.

    Thank you so much.
    Marcie

    • Hey. If you’re looking for public domain, follow the links to the Mark Campbell book and the National Artistic Handwork Company catalogue. Best of luck on your project.

  9. I have a beautiful wreath in a deep picture frame like I’m seeing alot of on line. It seems to be more “floral” and very detailed. My husband wonders at the value of these pieces. Can you give me an estimate?

    Your website is very gorgeous and helpful. I wasn’t aware of so many different art forms involving hair. Thanks so much!

    • Glad you enjoyed the article.

      The value of your piece would depend upon condition, the level of artistry, and how you actually go about selling it, but I generally see them on eBay in the low hundreds. If more people become aware of hairwork, the price will likely increase; my sense is that right now they are fairly obscure and therefore undervalued, but that may just reflect my personal taste.

  10. Unfortunately when my grandmother passed away, my parents disposed of her floral hair wreath made up of her ancestor’s hair. It was beautifully made, very floral. Is there a way to trace this piece to see what happened to it? We were young and told my mother it was spooky. I saw one years later in an antique shop in Highland Falls NY and it brought back memories.

  11. YES!!!! Thanks so much for this post and your links – amazing!!! Am so inspired :) xxx

  12. We visited Leila’s Hair Museum – Independence Missouri — this year and met with Miss Leila. She said she is finishing her book. She has an amazing collection of Victorian hair art and hair iconography, and there is a tour guide who walks you through and answers any questions you have.

  13. Hi, I am Deborah Walters. I am the owner of the hair album that is pictured on this page. I just stumbled onto this web site and was pleasantly surprised to see a picture of my family treasure posted on your site. You probably came across the photos on hairworksociety.org or it may be on other sites now, as well. I have been researching the book for the past several years. There are over 100 hair momentos stitched into the pages of the book, along with a fading name, a poem, and date of death if the person had already died when the young woman, Catherine A. Knouff, of Noble, OH, put the book together. If the person was already deceased, the woman attached a black ribbon to the hair. Otherwise the intricately braided hair is adorned with small brightly colored ribbons, some stitched into tiny medallions. The book was given to my mother from her grandmother. She was the only relative known to me to be in the book. It has been my project to try to find out who these people were and how they were related to each other and to me. I traced the origin of the book to Noble County, Ohio. I have made several trips to that area and have located many of the people in courthouse records, wills, and cemeteries in Noble and Guernsey, a neighboring county, as well as in Edgar County, Illinois! I have found many to be relatives, but many are left to be found. One of the people was killed in a Civil War battle, and the name of the battle and date of his death was recorded in the book, so I made a trip to D.C. to the archives for his war records. Although the art of Victorian Hairwork borders on morbid for me, the samples in this book are truly beautiful and most do not even look like hair! The hair has not faded and still shines, unlike the faded calligraphy. I would love to hear from others who might have a similar project or album. Also, I visited Leilla’s Hair Museum in Independence, MO. Leila was a wealth of knowledge about the art form. What a journey this has been! Thanks for sharing my photo on your site!

  14. OK, sorry. I just noticed that I gave you permission to use the photo. I have granted permission to a couple different publications and didn’t recognize this site-probably because of the name! However, I am glad to see it here!

    • Thanks again for that, and for adding more information to the comments section. This has turned out to be the most popular article on the site.

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